Joseph Bruchac is a member of the Nulhegan Abenaki Nation and native Saratogian. He’s also the city’s inaugural poet laureate, tasked with creating, reading and disseminating poetry that defines Saratoga Springs.
Bruchac is a writer, musician and traditional storyteller who has authored over 180 books in various genres. He began writing poetry in the second grade.
His writing, including poems and essays, has appeared in numerous publications including Smithsonian magazine and National Geographic.
Bruchac is a graduate of Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature. He earned a master’s degree in literature and creative writing from Syracuse University and a doctorate in Comparative Literature from the Union Institute of Ohio.
He has taught at many schools including Columbia University and Skidmore College. He also spent three years teaching in Ghana and eight years teaching and directing an education program inside a maximum security prison.
Bruchac has received several honors over the years including the Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship and the National Education Association Civil Rights Award.
The Gazette caught up with Bruchac shortly after he was named the city’s poet laureate.
Q: Why is this position important to you?
A: When it was suggested I thought it was something I was appropriate for. My background, my interests, my experience all tie into being able to do this job in a way that would be advantageous to the community and Saratoga Springs is my hometown.
Although I live two miles north of the line, I went to school in Saratoga. I was born in Saratoga Springs. I’ve lived here all of my life except the three years when I was a teacher in West Africa and the four years I was a college student at Cornell University. So it was something I thought I could do to give back to this community that has given so much to me throughout my life.
Q: What inspires your poetry?
A: My knowledge and interest in poetry include the great poets of the Tang Dynasty of China, Pablo Neruda the poet of Chile and writers throughout history who I feel very connected to including the poets of England and France. I really did a broad study of poetry and have written not just about Native American subjects but I write haiku. I’ve written sonnets.
I’ve written a lot about nature. Nature is very important to me. When I went to Cornell University I actually [majored] in wildlife conservation for three years. Poets such as Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry have been very important to me. People I’ve actually known throughout my lifetime have influenced me to write poems that talk about our important relationship with all life and with all things and to help people see that relationship through poetry is part of what I try to do.
Q: What do you hope people will gain from hearing your poems?
A: [It’s] not just [about] hearing my poetry. Sure, I will be sharing my own work as part of it and doing readings and things like that are significant but the idea of encouraging an awareness of poetry in general, of recognizing how poetry, I believe, is the language of the heart. It’s the way we can express ourselves and understand ourselves, so to see poetry as part of your life, your experience and to encourage people to write poems on their own I think is a significant part of the role of the poet laureate.
Q: What other activities do you want to do as poet laureate?
A: I like the idea of workshops for people to write about various things. Maybe we’ll look at poetry as a way of experiencing and understanding the importance of peace and being kind to others as well as to yourself.
I also have the idea to do things that would put poetry more in the public eye, perhaps having poems relate to places. We have a place called Pitney Meadows, which is a community farm. The idea of creating a poetry walk for poems that relate to nature, to gardening, to the outdoors by writers throughout not just the United States but throughout history.
Q: As you think about poems related to Saratoga Springs, what themes and ideas stand out?
A: I actually wrote a celebratory poem of the city, which I read at the city council meeting called the ‘Medicine Place.’ The idea that Saratoga has a long history of healing, that we have springs, which really were the genesis of the town. That Saratoga’s history also includes people coming to Saratoga from all over the world. I remember as a child walking up certain streets in Saratoga where there were boarding houses and hearing more than a dozen different European languages being spoken by men and women who were concentration camp survivors who came to Saratoga to take the baths. I think of Saratoga as a place that has an incredible atmosphere, history and potential for writing poetry.
Q: What do you do when you have writer’s block?
A: Gee I don’t. I think people make it up. I think people convince themselves that what they’re doing is not good enough, so they just don’t try or they say well I have to clean my desk, I’ve got to do this or that and well there’s no time to write anymore.
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